In a world over-saturated with visual stimulation, it’s easy to think that any one image doesn’t matter. From print advertisements to Internet sidebars to Facebook events, the amount of visual information we process on a given day is astounding. It has become easy to see how large quantities of images can cause societal changes. But what can just one image do? My answer: a lot.
Most of us, at some point or another, have come across findings that link the hyper-sexualized imagery of women in the popular media with negative body image or increased sexual harassment. But unfortunately, in this case, one image that deviates from the norm can’t change the status quo.
Like the rest of the world, Duke suffers from avalanches of visual information. Flyers, plaza boards, emails, Facebook postings, Duke memes, banners. … Everywhere we turn, online and offline, there is always something trying to catch our eye. In a lot of ways this is great—it shows that we are an active campus, with many great programs and events.
But what we often fail to realize is that each image we post on Facebook, or associate ourselves with online, reflects on us, perhaps more so than non-visual information. Some people like to say we are in the Information Age, or even the Technology Age. Well, I say that we’re entering the Visual Age. Nowadays, one image is all it takes for our, well, image to be changed.
I recently started paying more attention to how I represent myself visually, beginning with what to allow on my Facebook profile. At some point within the last year, the site introduced the option to require approval before tagged items appeared on one’s profile. Since then I’ve used the feature, but I’ve always indiscriminately approved them all, thinking, “I don’t have anything to hide.” And I don’t. But now I’m reevaluating my arbitrary security system.
A couple of weeks ago I decided to remove my profile picture, a photo of me making a ridiculously excited face while holding a rather intense-looking water gun. I realized that I didn’t want to be thought of as someone who was pumped to be engaging in war-like activities, even if the war-like activity was nothing more than posing with a child’s toy.
The picture in question is a pretty appealing photo. I look happy and silly, but I’m not making the dreaded happy face that equals the most unattractive expression ever. Even aesthetically it looks good: The contrast between the colors of garish water gun and jewel-green forest background make it seem almost surreal. And it matches my cover photo—what more could I want in a profile picture?
In a lot of ways the photo seems perfect for a fun, end-of-summer profile update, but after some thought I realized that it didn’t represent me well at all. I lean pacifist, and even though I do, in certain cases, support guns and warfare, I would never take these subjects lightly.
Somehow, when a moment is frozen and captured forever in the form of an image, it takes on more meaning than the action itself. The fact that I might enjoy spraying water at my friends on a hot day to cool off is not more serious than it sounds, but our minds instantly link an image of a toy gun to real guns, to war, destruction, hardship and struggle. We have an immediate and visceral reaction to such images, a reaction that we are often unaware of.
In the case of my profile picture, a viewer could subconsciously connect me to all that real guns bring to mind—for better or for worse. That connection could make them feel uncomfortable “friending” me or could cause them to question how seriously I take the ramifications of war. I would never want anyone to subconsciously write me off on the basis of something as trivial as my profile picture.
I haven’t untagged myself or removed the picture, because it’s an important memory of my summer reunion with my high school friends. I did, however, change my profile picture. Maybe no one would ever have noticed it. Either way, I would not have known how the photo was received until it was too late.
I encourage all of us to reconsider how we represent ourselves visually, whether it’s on the Internet through social networking sites or offline through organization flyers. It might seem extreme to consider the personal, ethical ramifications of one image, but as we enter the Visual Age, this will become ever more important. Actions may speak louder than words, but sometimes images speak loudest of all.
Hannah Anderson-Baranger is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Thursday.